How often do you or your students puzzle over the fingerings provided in the expensive edition? Can your instincts be completely wrong? Why are there such a wide range of opinions as reflected in printed editions and on recordings? How do you make good fingering choices for your body and instrument that are also stylistically correct?
According to Carl Flesch, "The term 'fingering' may be defined as the choice of the finger used to produce a certain tone (as indicated by a number over the musical note). This choice may be made from two points of view—the technical and the musical. The ideal fingering is the one that answers the requirements of both. Technically it should be governed by the rule that calls for a minimum expenditure of effort. Musically it should carry out the intentions of the composer and thus conform to the rules of a stylistically correct performance." (Flesch 1966)
Yehudi Mehuhin states in his forward to Carl Flesch's Violin Fingering, "Violin fingerings are as personal as gestures and offer a range of choice and subtleties almost as wide as the alternative moves on a chess board. . . " (Flesch 1966) Fingerings reflect not only the opinion of the editor, but the governing principles and musical taste of string players at that time. In the 19th century, all violinists were influenced by the virtuosity of Paganini. The easiest fingering or bowing was not always considered to be the most impressive or expressive.
GOVERNING PRINCIPLES for Making Your Own Choices:
Utilize your scale and arpeggio fingerings. Many standard scale fingerings ascend in plus-two position shifts and descend in minus-three position shifts. A half-step is played with the 4th finger at the top of the scale. Learn one set of scale and arpeggio fingerings so well that they can be played without thought or effort. Then experiment and become familiar with as many other patterns as possible. Tonal music frequently employs scales and arpeggios. Learn fingerings for all modes and ethnic scales. Practice scales and arpeggios on one string.
Each string has a different timbre. Any note on the E string can be played on any other string. Consider what sound you desire. What is indicated by the composer? What is expected? If you cannot play the beginning of Monti's Csardas all on the G string, perhaps you are not ready to play the work. Are you doing the expected string crossings in Bach? They are written in a particular key to achieve the desired effect such as bariolage.
When should you cross strings? When shifting is impractical in fast passages, crossing strings is preferred. Avoid crossing strings for just one note. Perhaps you want to keep a sequence or a phrase on the same string to maintain the same sound. High melodic passages where tone is paramount will be best played on the E string. Avoid crossing over to lower strings in high positions, as the tone is less clear.
Should you play open strings or stopped notes? Avoid open strings on strong beats and/or long notes in a melodic passage. Playing the open E string, with its metallic timbre, is considered a sin in many orchestral passages. One example is the opening of Strauss' Don Juan. Sometimes an open E is appropriate, but it causes a whistling sound, making a stopped note the preferred fingering choice. Other times the open string is essential. The non-whistling E string provides a good solution. Public school teachers do a great job of introducing the 4th finger early. However, I have had students who struggle to play an open string when marked, since the habit of using a stopped finger has become so engrained.
Avoid using the same finger in a row more than two times. The use of the same finger more than two times in a row will not sound clean and will make a glissando. Similarly, repeated use of sliding half-steps is not ideal. Charles-Auguste de Bériot is credited with the development of chromatic fingering, when a different finger is used on each half step. Open strings work well in this type of fingering. (Bériot ca. 1870)
Are your hands small, large, wide, narrow? If your hands are small, perhaps extensions and fingered octaves won't work for you. You may choose to shift rather than stretch beyond the perfect 4th hand frame between 1st and 4th fingers, particularly in lower positions. Are your fingers long with a large hand span? Caterpillar fingering (Neumann, 104) might be ideal for you. Caterpillar fingering is when there is an extension of a third or more between each adjacent finger. These stretches can be assisted by pivoting where there is a reach followed by a rebalancing of the hand. Are your fingers wide? You may have to make some adjustments when playing in higher registers. Do you have a short, weak pinky? I often replace my 4th finger with a stronger finger and one that has a better vibrato.
Are harmonics cheating, or in good musical taste? Why do we see them so frequently used by editors? A harmonic can be achieved by extending the 4th finger upward from third position, resulting in an octave above the open string. I avoid harmonics in the Baroque and Classical periods. Solid fingers are preferred in melodic passages, as they will match in timbre and can be vibrated. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
Should you shift or add a portamento slide? What is the style of the music? Shifting is for transportation. Portamento slides add personal expression. The two types of portamento slides are often associated with the famous violinists who are known for them. Fritz Kreisler preferred the French slide which began with old finger and Jascha Heifetz was associated with the Russian slide, an under-slide originating with the arrival finger. If you want to hide an audible shift, a half-step shift is a great way to gain a position. Shifts after open strings are also inaudible. Extensions work well in passages with ascending triads. They can be fingered 1, 3, 4 or 1, 2, 4, depending on your hand frame.
In his Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, Leopold Mozart points out the following principles regarding shifting:
Don't be afraid to experiment. Start with what is in the part, but challenge what doesn't make sense or work for you. Practice a passage starting on each of your four fingers. Boris Schwarz states in his Editor's Preface for Flesch's book, Violin Fingering: Its Theory and Practice, that Flesch was not dogmatic about the fingerings his students used. He freely shared his marked parts, but students were free to experiment, as long as their choices were logical. (Flesch, 1966) Flesch also states that ". . . the average student usually regards the fingerings, printed or inscribed in his music, as gospel-truth, which he follows in blind faith. This lavish dependence will have the effect of gradually stunting any innate predisposition for original thought, while at the same time the development of personal taste is impaired." (Flesch 1966)
Repetition of a passage provides an excellent opportunity for a different fingering achieving a different effect. Remember to utilize the less familiar positions including half-position and the even positions.
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